Charles M. Stang on the work of Susan Brind Morrow
I can’t remember how it was that Susan Brind Morrow’s book, The Names of Things: A Passage in the Egyptian Desert, first found its way into my hands. I think someone gave it to me, but I can’t remember who, or exactly when. I do know that I’ve given it to a number of other people since then. I’ve read it so many times that I can’t remember when I first read it—it must have been around 2002, when I moved to Cairo for six months, longing for my own “passage in the Egyptian desert.” I know I must have had it with me in Cairo, because I transcribed passages from it into a notebook I carried with me from that time.
I reread it recently, and it’s astonishing how a book one has read so many times still offers itself up as if it were new, almost unread. I laughed again at her description of her first hotel in Cairo—the Garden City House because it was mine also. I remember the unbearable heat and humidity of my arrival in August, of my inability to sleep for many days, and as a result the Cairo I first came to know was almost hallucinatory, an insomniac’s dream of overwhelming crowds, traffic, and noise. I fell in love with that city, and with the dying river that cut through it—especially the Cairo of night during long hours spent lingering in coffee shops, smoking, and playing shesh besh.
I was also reminded of the pain at the center of Morrow’s book, the loss of her sister Barbara and, later, her brother David. In the wake of her brother’s death, Susan writes of finding her way back to Egypt:
“In the beginning of the summer I packed up and left the
country, having no idea where I was going. I wrote in my Shanghai
journal, on a train going north through Norway in August,
Something like the Fall in me
All my leaves were dying
They died in the most violent way
And turned screaming colors
I traveled north to the Lofoten Islands in the Arctic Ocean.
Coming south again I shared a compartment with an old Englishman
who lived in Oman. He was murmuring out his lists of
Arabic verb forms as we sped through the Dolomites. Listening
to him, I knew that throughout the trip, curled on my sleeping
bag spread out in train compartments, loving the rain and cold, I
had been heading back to Egypt.
It was not the idea of Egypt, or of Egyptology this time,
that drew me there, but Egypt itself. Egypt as raw environment,
difficult though it was. I have thought since that the difficult part
of it was like a knife cutting away the frozen parts of myself. At
Venice, I took a boat to Alexandria. I came into Cairo having
shed my baggage all along the way.” (59-60)
In the years since I first read, and reread The Names of Things, I have regularly spied on Susan by way of her publications. I remember in particular when Wolves & Honey came out. Last year, while doing my usual
sleuthing to see what Susan was up to, I saw that she had published The Dawning Moon of the Mind: Unlocking the Pyramid Texts. And then I read this description:
“Buried in the Egyptian desert some four thousand years
ago, the Pyramid Texts are among the world’s oldest poetry. Yet
ever since the discovery of these hieroglyphs in 1881, they have
been misconstrued by Western Egyptologists as a garbled collection
of primitive myths and incantations, relegating to obscurity
their radiant fusion of philosophy, scientific inquiry, and religion.
Now, in a seminal work, the classicist and linguist Susan
Brind Morrow has recast the Pyramid Texts as a coherent work of
art, arguing that they should be recognized as a formative event
in the evolution of human thought. In The Dawning Moon of the
Mind she explains how to read hieroglyphs, contextualizes their
evocative imagery, and interprets the entire poem. The result is
a magisterial religious and philosophical text revealing a profound
consciousness of the world with astonishing parallels to
Judeo-Christian culture, Buddhism, and Tantra.”
It’s a thrilling read, and a magisterial interpretive event. Last year, as I pondered how best to issue an invitation to Susan, I happened to be in Terry Tempest Williams’ apartment: Terry is the writer-in-residence at HDS and a resident of the CSWR. My eyes were drawn to her bookshelves where what did I find but a copy of The Names of Things. It turns out that we had both been touched by Susan’s searing prose, which has always reminded me of Emerson’s famous line, “Genius is the activity that repairs the decay of things.” Terry was as excited as I about the prospect of inviting Susan to speak as part of our series on “Poetry, Philosophy, and Religion.” And, so the invitation was issued and we were delighted when Susan accepted.
In October, 2018, Susan came to the Center to give a lecture from out of The Dawning Moon of the Mind. She spoke on “Nature into Language: Hieroglyphs and the Origins of Poetic Thought.” Taking inspiration from
Emerson’s insistence that “Language is fossil poetry,” Susan discussed hieroglyphs as poetic metaphors and vehicles of abstract thought that emerged from close observation of nature—a sophisticated language and metaphysics rooted in the vivid and precisely depicted physical world. Susan is currently the Scholar in Residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, and is also A New York Institute for the Humanities Fellow as well as a former Guggenheim Fellow. She was kind enough to share the following three poems as a gift to our community of readers.
Susan Brind Morrow
I love to watch you walking in the evening, when you’re afraid,
and your wavering frame folds back arc-like to fight the wind.
Your skin melts golden with the sides of grass
and voices of birds skin your delicate heart.
Susan Brind Morrow
Black earth, wet earth, first smell of spring.
We walk around the lake where the smashed ice lies in loose low heaps
Where the lake, refrozen now, broke and spilled it in the wind.
Our feet slide beneath us in the steel gray evening.
A mallard shot open spreads its frozen insides on the ice, thick and red
around its waxy yellow organs rimmed with iridescent feathers blue and
a scrap thrown up, a treasure of the splintering thaw
The Silver Forest
Susan Brind Morrow
In the silver forest the light is silver
And the hard leaves of salt-fed trees clatter in the wind
And the snakes and birds in them are invisible.
Their roots wind through pocked iron coral
That on the surface cuts like teeth,
Roots carved in claws as smooth and hard as ivory.
For a day I pretend I am a creature of the sea
I lay flat on the sand and let the froth slide under me.
Hush, no time... the waves are circular with the tide.
The wind animates the mineral earth
As though it were its disembodied breath.
This is a secret.
The sand lies down under the waves
The color of my brother’s skin
And the water is the color of my brother’s eyes
Here he comes over the sand, a mirror of me.
I close my eyes and have one true friend.